January 4, 2011

Bert Belongs

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. At its essence, this is the argument in favor of Bert Blyleven's inclusion in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In his 22 seasons, Bert was never awarded the Cy Young, never led the league in ERA or wins, only did so once in strikeouts, and was just twice selected to the All-Star team. However, over the entirety of his tenure, Bert struck out more batters than all but four pitchers in history, propelled two different teams to World Series championships with his outstanding postseason performances, and threw what many cite as the finest curveball they ever saw. For these reasons and more, Bert truly belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Detractors often cry foul over Bert's failure to dominate relative to his peers in any one season, claiming it as justification for his exclusion from the Hall of Fame; never earning more than 20 wins in a year and never winning a Cy Young, for example, do not edify a career worthy of Cooperstown, the argument goes. While those facts are indubitable, such an interpretation of them fails to hearken the notion that criteria used for judging a career differ from those used to evaluate a season. The Baseball Writers Association of America, the cabal responsible for selecting Hall of Fame members and various other award recipients, undoubtedly comprehends this distinction. It is partially why they furnish separate honors for those who excel over the course of several months (Cy Young, Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year) and for those who do so over the course of several years (Hall of Fame admission). Accomplishing the latter is precisely what Bert has done; productive longevity, not sporadic flashiness, defines his career.

As a whole, Bert's body of work reflects this with few blemishes. His most prominent accomplishments have been recited by proponents ad nauseum: 3,701 strikeouts, a 3.31 ERA, his 273 wins being the most for a non-member of the Hall of Fame with the lone exception of Tommy John, etc. Many decry such lofty sums as the product of longevity, attributing them to 22 seasons spent as a "stat collector." However, Bert's numbers on relative measures such as K/BB and WHIP refute this, reflecting consistent performance over a time period in which most pitchers would suffer from significant decline. Bert owns a 2.33 BB/9, a 1.198 WHIP, and a 2.8 K/BB, all of which document both his tremendous control and his capacity to strike out opposing hitters. Compared to six peers from his era that have been elected to the Hall of Fame (displayed in the table below), Bert appears to hold his own.

Even more so than in the regular season, Bert was absolutely dominant in October. Though he played on many terrible teams that had little hope of reaching the postseason, Bert was electric when the opportunity arose. He amassed a 5-1 record and a 2.47 ERA in three trips to the postseason, guiding two different clubs to World Series titles. When it mattered most, Bert was at his best.

Bert was not only effective, but abiding as well. Representing a bygone age in which pitchers regularly threw deep into the ballgame, 242 of his 685 starts were complete games (35.3%). Those 242 complete games are more than all but seven pitchers have tossed since 1955. An astounding 60 of these were shutouts; this is nearly as many as Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens have accumulated combined, and more than all but eight members of the Hall of Fame have earned. It is unsurprising, then, that Bert averaged 7.2 innings per game, or that he averaged 225.9 innings per season during his career. In the truest sense of the word, Bert was a workhorse.

Despite these achievements, between 25.8% and 85.9% of the Baseball Writers Association of America deemed him unbefitting for the Hall of Fame in each of his 13 years of eligibility. This highlights both the subjectivity of the selection process and the admittedly uneasy task of evaluating a set of players across generations and with disparate attributes. Even within a set of starting pitchers from a given time period, individuals are often assessed on a variety of qualities ranging from their propensity to win games to their endurance, and rarely are metrics used that combine these multiple facets in a quantitative fashion. Analysis of Hall of Fame candidates often boils down to comparing apples to oranges.

Developing an index that weighs a player's various statistics according to their valued merit can help remedy this issue. The index below calculates a single score for Bert and the six Hall of Famers discussed above based on several measures falling into the following categories: performance, winning, endurance, longevity, postseason play, and honors. Categories and their component variables are designed to represent different attributes of a pitcher's career; different weights can be assigned to each category according to their relative importance to the overall quality of a pitcher's career. The index score is scaled from 0 to 1, with individual scores being normalized by the highest score of the group; if the index generates .956 as the highest raw score, for example, it is assigned a value of 1 and all other scores are adjusted proportionally. Raw values for each component variable are normalized in this same manner. The index method ensures that observations across this group of pitchers are gauged using the same instrument; it compares apples to apples.

Of course, what criteria qualify as important and how they are weighted are subjective and influence the overall scores produced by the index. A balanced index that weighs winning and performance equally at .35/1 and weighs all other categories at .08/1 shows Bert with a score of .902; similar to the comparison group used and 6th best among them. Indices that place an emphasis on winning and performance respectively yield scores of .906 and .926, 6th and 5th best among the comparison group. An index valuing endurance, longevity, and honors puts Bert at 4th among his Hall of Fame peers. In any configuration, Bert's career performance is at least comparable to, and in some cases better than that of Hall of Fame pitchers from the same generation.

The glimmer of hope for Bert's final two years of eligibility is that a paradigm shift in how baseball writers assess pitching performance appears to be underway. The embrace of sabermetrics by a number of writers may work towards Bert's favor in many ways, but the diminished emphasis on a pitcher's role in the game decision may be the most significant. As evinced by Zack Greinke and Felix Hernandez winning the two most recent American League Cy Young Awards with records of 16-8 and 13-12, respectively, the Baseball Writers Association of America appears increasingly willing to disregard a pitcher's wins and losses in light of their performance as gauged by alternative metrics. There are fewer pitchers for whom this would benefit more than Bert, who toiled for many seasons on woefully bad teams that provided him with little run support. He found himself on the losing end of 99 quality starts during his career, which is the 5th most since 1952. In addition, 79 of Bert's quality starts ended in a no-decision. In spite of his teams' anemic offensive production, he managed to win 287 games, falling just 13 short of a benchmark that many concede would have guaranteed him election into the Hall of Fame had he reached it. Given the context, being 13 wins deficient of 300 is a laudable feat, not a liability.

The gradual change of heart among baseball writers also likely explains why Bert's presence on Hall of Fame ballots has risen steadily from a nadir of 14.1% in 1999. In 2010, Bert garnered support on 74.2% of ballots, falling just five votes shy of the 75% threshold for admission. Should recent trends continue, electors should at least satisfice Bert's deserved inclusion in Cooperstown, and the mounting chorus of those clamoring "Bert belongs" will at last be placated.

August 1, 2010

Matt Capps and the Future of the Minnesota Twins' Bullpen

A Major League Baseball team's bullpen is an assemblage often resembling the Island of Misfit Toys--demoted members of the rotation, pitchers possessing great stuff but lacking endurance, and young starters-in-waiting are but a few of the many characters commonly found in such a myriad. The Minnesota Twins recently expanded the diversity of their bullpen with the addition of bona-fide veteran Matt Capps. Unsurprisingly, his acquisition was met with a mixture of praise and criticism. Much of the feedback has been myopic and disregards a fundamental issue; the composition of the Twins' bullpen in 2011 is extremely unclear.

While it is worthwhile to question the merits of this recent move given that the Twins already had a competent closer and would arguably have derived greater benefit from expending resources in pursuit of an established starting pitcher, it is impossible to ignore the uncertainty surrounding next year's relief corps. Four members of the Twins' current bullpen could enter free agency at the conclusion of this season, including longtime stalwarts Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain. Based on the quality of their pitching this year, obtaining just one of this duo may prove to be cost-prohibitive, especially considering the large increase in payroll encumbered for Joe Mauer beginning in 2011. An additional ambiguity is whether Joe Nathan can regain his form following Tommy John surgery. The experiences of Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek warrant assuming that Nathan's return to dominance is far from guaranteed, particularly when his age and the recentness of his injury are considered.

The product of these factors is the potential dissolution of an established, solid group of relief pitchers hallmarked by relative consistency and effectiveness. Despite being frequently mislabeled as a perennial Achilles' heel, Minnesota's bullpen has been among the best in baseball during the past several seasons. In the Ron Gardenhire era, Minnesota's bullpen has never posted an ERA higher than 3.97 nor ranked any lower than 12th in MLB for this category. Matt Capps, in five and a half seasons, has posted numbers remarkably congruent with the Twins' bullpen; his command and low propensity to walk batters are quite representative of the mold that bullpen coach Rick Stelmaszek uses to shape pitchers. If the Twins hope to continue possessing a bullpen of this caliber, Matt Capps may well be the only current reliever capable of carrying the torch and establishing continuity between past and future seasons.
One salient critique of the Capps transaction worth addressing is the value on the cost side of the ledger. It is very plausible that the Twins sold low on Wilson Ramos, failing to recoup his full value by trading him at a point when his offensive numbers are fairly unimpressive (.241 BA and .625 OPS at AAA, both career lows). Failure to extract the optimal price for a player is a risk endogenous to every trade, however, and time could also prove this deal to be a boon for the Twins if Ramos' production stagnates or declines. Such is the essence of player transactions; uncertainty is ubiquitous.

The temptation to evaluate trades by comparing expected performances across players is one to which it is easy to capitulate. Though this is undoubtedly important to such an analysis, paying heed to the context in which trades occur frequently elucidates a more accurate assessment of their virtues. In this instance, it reveals that the acquisition of Matt Capps may not only pay dividends in 2010, but when they are sorely needed in 2011 as well.

July 12, 2010

Blackburn Deserves Demotion

Albert Einstein once described insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." It is safe to assume, then, that Ron Gardenhire is not familiar with the German physicist's maxim by virtue of the decision to keep Nick Blackburn in the starting rotation after the All-Star break. Gardenhire is notoriously stubborn in his reluctance to alter the roster (something that will hopefully be tested empirically in a subsequent post), but this could very well be his most obstinate stance yet.

Blackburn just concluded what will hopefully be the worst half-season of his career, heading into the break with a 6.40 ERA and a 1.66 WHIP to show for his efforts.  His WHIP is the worst in baseball, and his ERA trails only Scott Kazmir for the same mark of distinction. Aside from mild improvement during May, Blackburn's performance has been trending downward all year, reflective of increased homogeneity in his pitching arsenal.  

The first account of this phenomenon, as admitted by pitching coach Rick Anderson, is that Blackburn has become heavily reliant upon his fastball and is doing a poor job of diversifying his pitches. In 2010, 66.8% of his pitches have been fastballs, contrasted with just 49.6% in 2008. His propensity to throw fastballs is manifested regardless of the pitch count; even in 0-2 situations, Blackburn has gone to his fastball 57% of the time.

In addition, there has been a convergence of speed across Blackburn's pitches, as shown by FanGraphs. While his fastball's average velocity has remained fairly constant over the past three seasons, the average velocity of his off-speed pitches has increased such that the differential between them is now much smaller. Even his fastball itself has displayed far less velocity range in 2010 than in previous years.

Because of this, Blackburn is coughing up more hits, issuing more walks, striking out fewer batters, and ultimately surrendering more runs. Opposing hitters make contact on an astonishing 93.7% of his pitches that they swing at, which is far higher than any other qualified starter in baseball. At the same time batters are swatting the ball with greater frequency, they are swinging less at pitches outside of the strike zone, resulting in more balls and walks for Blackburn.
Obviously, this is an untenable course for a starting pitcher to travel, and could serve as an admonishment for teams pondering whether to sign a starting pitcher who has never posted a winning record or an ERA under 4.00 to a multi-year deal. Gardenhire points to Blackburn's performance at home (5-1 with a 3.72 ERA) as justification for keeping him in the rotation, which overlooks several key facts. One is that Target Field is a pitcher-friendly park, and Blackburn's 3.72 ERA there is still last among Twins starters and better than only Jesse Crain and rookie Alex Burnett for the entire team. Second is that Blackburn will inevitably be required to pitch on the road again if he remains in the rotation, where his home numbers are completely arbitrary.

The silver lining is that Blackburn has not lost his stuff, but rather needs to learn how to mix up his repertoire the way he did in 2008 and 2009. However, the big league stage during a pennant race with two division rivals is not the most befitting milieu in which this should occur. Rather, it would be more appropos to demote Blackburn to AAA Rochester and fill his slot in the rotation with Brian Duensing. Duensing was a starter for the entirety of his college and minor league careers, and posted a 5-1 record and a 2.73 ERA as a starter during the Twins' run up to the AL Central title in late 2009. He has been effective in the bullpen this year, though his talents may be languishing there. This approach has the added benefit of showcasing a player who could be dangled as bait before the trade deadline while Blackburn simultaneously regains his form, and creates an opportunity for Anthony Slama to test his stuff in the majors.

Einstein also stated that "no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it."  If the Twins believe that Nick Blackburn will return to serviceability while remaining a member of their starting rotation, they will have to defy this in order to make it possible.

June 29, 2010

It's Not Time to Panic...Yet

This is not supposed to be happening to the Twins. Certainly not in June, a month typically reserved for padding their record by beating up on weak NL opponents. The table was turned in 2010, however, with Minnesota compiling just an 8-10 interleague record and losing ground to Detroit and a streaking White Sox club. At fault for this slump are the usual suspects; injuries, diminished hitting, and a decline in pitching. But despite the downturn in performance, there is no need to sound the alarm just yet.

The most obvious factor behind the Twins' woes is that they have been without at least half of their starting middle infield for the entire month of June. Orlando Hudson's bat was sorely missed in the two-slot prior to his return on June 18, and J.J. Hardy has been sidelined since June 8, creating a ten day lapse in which both players were inactive. With a depth chart as shallow as the Twins' at these positions, offensive production naturally suffered. Third base has also been a problem, even when the rest of the infield is healthy; Twins third basemen are at or near the bottom of MLB in nearly every batting category, with the power numbers being exceptionally poor.

As if an injury plagued middle infield were not agonizing enough, June proved to be a difficult month at the plate for the core of the Twins' lineup. Denard Span and Michael Cuddyer both saw significant declines in their BA, OBP, and SLG. Joe Mauer did as well, and his relative dearth of power when compared to 2009 continued (an eloquent explanation of this phenomenon can be found here). Justin Morneau's numbers decreased in June for all categories, though this should not be a concern given his unearthly output during April and May and that his June numbers are not dissimilar from his career averages. Jason Kubel and Delmon Young both exhibited increased power, somewhat stemming the offensive downturn and enabling the Twins to salvage a few more wins than they otherwise would have been able to. Overall, there should not be too much worry over the June slump; hitters were markedly below their career averages and should rebound, and the lineup will be bolstered further if Kubel and Young can maintain their recent successes.
Of greater concern, however, is the Twins' starting rotation. Suspected as the team's Achilles heel heading into the season, the starters validated such concerns in June. Excluding Frank Zappa Carl Pavano, the rotation compiled an abhorrent 3-12 record and watched their ERA skyrocket. Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey, despite issuing fewer walks and hits per inning pitched, were hit hard when batters did make contact and have ERAs above 6.00 to show for it. Francisco Liriano's ERA did not climb nearly as much due to his ability to keep the ball inside the park (he has only surrendered two homeruns all year, leading MLB for pitchers with at least 60 innings pitched), although he possesses an incommensurable 1-3 record in June. Nick Blackburn was an absolute disaster with a dramatic increase in WHIP, an ERA of 12.05, and a 0-4 record in that time. The organization should strongly consider replacing him with Brian Duensing. Carl Pavano has been the sole bright spot, posting a 2.25 ERA, an astonishingly low .8 WHIP, and two consecutive complete games on the road. Relying on Pavano's recent success to continue should be taken with a grain of salt, however; his career is typified by erratic vacillation, and his June numbers were significantly better than his career averages.
Despite all of this, though, there are two significant reasons that the Twins should not enter panic mode and/or succumb to whimsy. One is that all of the declines in player performances appear to be deviations from, rather than regressions toward, the mean. When Joe Mauer's batting average precipitates from .321 in one month to .264 in the next, it is moving away from his average, not towards it. In other words, this is not a case of players coming down from unusually good numbers, but simply hitting a rough patch from which they can and should recuperate. The other mollifying factor is that it is still early in the season (read before the trade deadline) and the Twins have several options available to pacify particular concerns. There is no question that the addition of Cliff Lee to the rotation would be a net benefit in almost any trade situation that has been discussed. A stopgap at third base would not be too hard to come by if Danny Valencia should need more time in the minors; Joe Crede still lingers in free agency, for instance, and it is hard to imagine him playing worse than the current Nick Punto/Matt Tolbert platoon. And even though Ron Gardenhire is presently opposed to the idea, reshuffling the lineup to better utilize Delmon Young and remove Michael Cuddyer from hitting in clutch situations until he gets his swing back remains a possibility.

In short, the June skid and the loss of the division lead are of course disappointing, but they are hardly beyond rectification. Good teams use such trials as mechanisms for improvement, and the Twins are blessed with a manager and players who have been through similar situations before and know how to emerge from them stronger and relatively unscathed. There are 86 games remaining in the 2010 season, and more than one in every four is against either the Tigers or the White Sox; better for the Twins to slump now and learn from it than to do so in the thick of a pennant race in September.

June 20, 2010

Rauch's Success Should Not Come as a Surprise

To anyone who has witnessed the 6'11", 290 pound Jon Rauch charge out of the bullpen to pitch the ninth inning, it is obvious that Minnesota has a new closer this year. But from the box scores alone, it may be difficult to tell. Rauch, thus far, has displayed no aberrations from the dependable results produced by his currently inactive predecessor, Joe Nathan. While this is ultimately attributable to Rauch's skill, another culprit is the relative ease of his job; being a closer just ain't the chore that it is made out to be.
Every manager, understandably, desires an arm that can be relied upon to pitch a scoreless inning to finish off a close game. Even if that designee surrenders a run or two, they may still be in line for a coveted save if their team's lead is sufficient. Fending off late game rallies is undeniably important, but the bar for doing so and obtaining credit for it has been set incredibly low.

In theory, a closer can surrender a combination of five walks and/or hits, and two runs in every ninth inning appearance (an 18.00 ERA and a 5.00 WHIP) and still rack up a save every time. Excluding Rauch's two blown saves this year, he could own a 6.35 ERA and still have recorded 17 saves. Given that an overwhelming majority of innings in all baseball games are scoreless, with an even higher percentage exhibiting less than three runs scored, there is a pretty high likelihood that a closer (or any pitcher for that matter) will be able to complete their task. In the three days spanning June 11-13, for example, there were 772 half-innings of baseball played. Of those, 553 (72%) were completely scoreless, while 722 (94%) saw no more than two runs cross the plate. When a closer takes the mound and is asked to pitch only one inning, odds are in his favor regardless of the situation.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the transition from Nathan to Rauch has been so seamless. Teams change closers on a fairly regular basis. And while many claim that losing a closer is guaranteed to hamper the team's propensity to win games, this has been the exception to the rule. The Padres notably declined their option on long-time closer Trevor Hoffman's contract after the 2008 season in a move inevitably viewed as a white flag of surrender hoisted by a team entering rebuilding mode. His replacement, Heath Bell, performed exceptionally well in 2009 and continues to do so in 2010. The Twins faced similar doubts when Joe Nathan replaced "Everyday Eddie" Guardado in 2004. Even Mariano Rivera's rise to dominance was predicated by the Yankees abandoning an outstanding closer, John Wetteland, who was fresh off of a season in which he led the league in saves, earned the Rolaids Relief Man award, and was named the World Series MVP. The examples of new closers finding success far outnumber the examples of new closers failing miserably, and even when closers do not live up to past results, the ultimate end is often negligible (contrast the 2008 and 2009 Phillies' seasons with the performance of their closer during that time, Brad Lidge).

For these reasons and others, closers have been subjected to increasing scrutiny and criticism as their prominence has risen. Just one closer (or any relief pitcher) has won a Cy Young in the past 20 years, which is especially ironic given they are leaned upon more than ever due to starting pitchers throwing fewer and fewer innings during that span. Even the accomplishments that led to Eric Gagne winning the 2003 NL Cy Young were questioned as overrated.

Closers are not just critiqued as overrated, but overvalued as well. A closer's accomplishments often overshadow those of the rest of the bullpen, even if they produce relatively similar results, resulting in pay disparity. The table below displays the performance of the Twins bullpen in relation to their salaries, with Joe Nathan's numbers from his first 25 appearances in 2009 as a benchmark. Dividing a player's salary by their outs per earned run allowed provides an indication of that player's value, with lower values representing greater "bang for the buck". It is plain to see that young, arbitration-ineligible pitchers deliver more economical results, though even veterans like Matt Guerrier embody a greater value per dollar than Rauch--and especially Nathan--while delivering comparable (or even superior) results.
Part of the problem with evaluating a closer's worth is that the commonly used metrics to gauge their performance are lacking and paint an incomplete picture. Brian Fuentes, for example, led MLB with 48 saves in 2009, yet had a very pedestrian 3.93 ERA and opponents hit .254 against him (3rd worst among closers for both categories). Brian Wilson won accolades by notching 41 saves for the Giants in 2008, yet displayed similarly mediocre numbers with a 4.62 ERA and a .263 BAA. Joe Borowski made history in 2007 by becoming the first to lead the AL in saves with an ERA above 5.00. Of course, because of the relatively low number of innings pitched by closers, just one bad outing can have a disastrous and distorting impact on their numbers, but that only bolsters the point even further; judging the value of closers is a tricky business. This is especially true as closers are frequently prized for such intangible qualities as composure, maturity, and reliability.

Fortunately for the Twins, Jon Rauch appears to display these traits along with decent numbers, and has proven himself a capable stop-gap replacement for Joe Nathan. But before heaping mountains of praise upon him for this, it is prudent to ask if the low expectations of his role are a factor, and to question whether others would be able to yield the same results. Doing so reveals that Rauch's performance this year should not come as a surprise.

May 28, 2010

In Praise of Denard Span

With all the ballyhoo surrounding Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and the move to Target Field during the last few years, it is easy to overlook the contributions that Denard Span has made to the Minnesota Twins. In the same vein that Jason Kubel has appropriated the designated hitter slot, Span has secured a role that the Twins have sorely missed recently; a bona fide leadoff hitter.

Not since Chuck Knoblauch's tenure has Minnesota possessed a consistently reliable bat at the top of the order. The revolving cast of Christian Guzman, Jacque Jones, and Luis Castillo produced decent results, and Shannon Stewart looked promising before being sidelined with foot injuries towards the end of his stint. But since jockeying with and ultimately overtaking Carlos Gomez as the everyday #1 batter two years ago, Span has relished the opportunity and delivered a much needed impact that those before him could not.

The primary responsibility of a leadoff hitter, regardless of managerial philosophy, is to get on base. Whether the skipper espouses small ball or Earl Weaver's reliance on the three-run homer, the leadoff hitter first needs to reach base so that the RBI generators a few slots down in the order can drive him across the plate. Herein lies the offensive value of Denard Span; he is incredibly adept at setting the table for Morneau and company. In his nascent career, he has amassed a .387 OBP, driven by a .302 BA and an extremely impressive K/BB ratio of 1.17 (this season, Span's K/BB is .8). Compared to who are considered some of today's elite leadoff men, Span holds his own. Span's career OBP is equal to Derek Jeter's, and is higher than Ichiro's and pre-2009 Jose Reyes'. His K/BB ratio is lower than than all of theirs. Span's ability to reach first base makes it easy for the middle of the order to rack up such outstanding RBI totals, and works in tandem with them to produce runs and wins.

Equally impressive is Span's consistent improvement and resilience. His BA and OBP both rose from their 2008 levels last season, and are on track to do so this season as well. Were it not for a slow start to the year and terrible showings on the road, Span's numbers would be much higher than they are. His present .290 BA and .376 OBP are not terrible by anyone's standards, but their improvement over this season paints the full picture. Since shaking off his early season funk on April 15th, Span has hit a healthy .317 with a .385 OBP. In May alone, he has a .411 OBP and a .359 BA; his BA in May is 14th best in baseball and second only to Justin Morneau's dominant .402 on the Twins roster.

Span's value encompasses more than his propensity for reaching base. His discipline and patience at the plate are evinced by a 3.9 P/PA, which is near the upper end of the distribution for all batters. This tendency to work the count wears down opposing pitchers and results in their early exit from games. Defensively, Span is a capable glove in center with good range and speed; he is, after all, carrying the torch lit by Kirby Puckett and passed on by Torii Hunter. Span has remained relatively healthy and dependable. And by all accounts, he is a jovial clubhouse personality and an ideal teammate.

Of course, Span is not without shortcomings and exhibits room for improvement in a number of areas. His performances on the road in 2010 have been absolutely dismal, batting .204 with a .282 OBP outside of Target Field. His stolen base numbers, for a leadoff hitter, are nothing to write home about; he only stole 23 bases last season, being successful just 70% of the time. And while Span's likelihood of hitting for extra bases is not as low as, say, Nick Punto's, his career .416 SLG lags behind that of many other leadoff hitters. What this means is that although Span has an extraordinary capability to find first base, he is not as proficient as his peers at reaching second or third and being one or two stops closer to home and is thus less likely to score runs, ceteris paribus.

Overall, however, it is clear that Span has found his niche on Minnesota's roster; he has demonstrated his abilities nicely, and has earned his keep. Future success is never certain, but it is plausible that Span could join the ranks of Chuck Knoblauch and Rod Carew if his level of play can be sustained. Finishing his career with a .328 BA will be no small feat, and prying a batting title or two away from teammate Joe Mauer will prove even more difficult, but Span is only 26 and has shown nothing but upside. And now that it is no longer obstructed by two layers of Teflon-coated fiberglass, the sky is the limit.

April 13, 2010

Twins' First Week Provides Assurance, Optimism

With only seven of 162 games in the books for the 2010 Minnesota Twins, any prognostications about how this season will end are premature at best. If these first two series are a harbinger, however, Twins fans should be elated about their team's chances of playing in October for a second consecutive year.

Minnesota racked up ten homeruns from seven different players, indicative of a lineup that could not only be powerful, but balanced. J.J. Hardy and Delmon Young, hoping for rebound and breaktrough years, respectively, have two bombs each. Jim Thome reminded everyone that he's still one of the most feared hitters in the league with a three-run blast against the Angels. Michael Cuddyer, who led the club with 32 jacks in 2009, is surely due for a long ball himself. Assuming Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, and Joe Mauer can come close matching last year's numbers, Hardy recreates something resembling his 2007 and 2008 campaigns, and Young finally unleashes his power potential, the Twins could produce 20-plus homeruns from six different positions in the order. That power, injected into a lineup that's had a very good OBP for the past two seasons, is a formula that could produce a lot of runs.

The first 1.4 rotations of the starting pitching staff weren't overwhelming, but exhibited an arsenal that can be reliable and effective. The starters have combined for a respectable ERA of 3.65. With few exceptions, they have displayed excellent command and control of their pitches; this should be expected given that pitching coach Rick Anderson is known for preaching a "pitch-to-contact" philosophy under which opposing batters are seldom walked. Perhaps most importantly, though, given the perceived dearth of reliable arms in the bullpen, the starting rotation pitched relatively deep into games. The Twins milked an average of 6.3 innings per game from their starters, thus taxing their bullpen for only 2.6, ranking third in MLB. If this can be sustained, it will help ensure that Matt Guerrier and company don't get overused and stay fresh for marquee series against division opponents.

Reliance on the bullpen may not be entirely problematic, as the quality of relief pitching--oft the subject of Twins fans' misplaced concern--has been doing rather well. Their ERA of 1.45 is the best in the league, as is their 12.00 K/BB ratio. Given that the bullpen has only tossed 18 2/3 innings and has not been too heavily relied upon, however, it's difficult to glean their capacity from the small sampling frame that is this young season. By far the biggest relief from this first week is that Ron Gardenhire's selection of Jon Rauch to take over the closer role for the injured Joe Nathan looks to be sound. Rauch is 4/4 in save opportunities, and has yet to issue a walk. His calm composure stands in stark contrast to Nathan's constant twitching and fidgeting; however qualitative and intangible it may be, Rauch looks like a closer.

There are many questions abound that can only be answered as the season progresses, but there are few ways in which Twins fans could be happier about the first week of the 2010 campaign. The fact that it took place on the road against teams expected to content in their divisions only sweetens the matter. If Minnesota can carry this level of play into Target Field and beyond, 2010 looks to be a very good year for this club.